By Robin Osborne
Many Sydneysiders remain sceptical about how the NSW Water Board is handling the city's sewage disposal dilemma, with concerns focussing on just how clean the ocean will be after hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on improving the treatment and discharge technologies.
Until recently, popular beaches, especially the famous Bondi, were serious health hazards because of industrial waste-dumping into the sewers and the release of inadequately treated household discharges.
Two years ago, after the exposure of a long cover-up by the Water Board, the state Coalition announced a "special environmental program" aimed at cleaning up the beaches. It would be funded by an annual $80 "environmental levy" on all householders in the metropolitan area.
It is this levy which has upset a family in the Blue Mountains, on Sydney's western approach, and as a result highlighted the way the board deals with even mild criticism.
The Harvey-Scrine household in the mid-Mountains town of Hazelbrook owns an adjoining vacant block which is neither sewered nor drained; it doesn't even have a tap.
Yet the Water Board's charges for the block include the levy to pay for its costly upgrading work. And the owners aren't happy with the response to their inquiries.
The levy began in 1989 and is intended to raise $440 million (plus $30 million in interest) in five years. Of this, $216 million will be spent in beachside areas.
At a cost of $300 million, outfall pipelines from three of Sydney's four treatment plants have recently been extended. They now take sewage from 2 to 4.8 km out to sea.
However, the wastes they discharge are treated only to primary stage (three stages are possible), a matter of great concern to the group Stop the Ocean Pollution (STOP), which says that the extensions are just taking dangerous wastes a bit further away. And what goes out must eventually come back.
The Water Board's response is a planned $190 million upgrading of all four treatment plants. Although the state government had promised secondary stage treatment in each plant, it seems now to have opted for a mix of lesser, if impressive-sounding, technologies. None of these, according to STOP, would be acceptable in a country like the USA.
The board was "manipulating politicians into believing that cheaper, less adequate treatments will do the job", STOP's Dr Sharon Beder said.
On March 13, the board will put its case to a public meeting in the beachside suburb of Manly. Nearby, the North Head plant incinerates toxic sewage sludge, a practice that would be ended by a technology called dissolved air flotation. However, this would remove only 60% of grease, rather than the 90% removed by secondary treatment.
The most unusual technology seems to be one in which iron powder attaches to solid waste and is then removed, taking the wastes with it, by a huge magnet. Perhaps we can save on the operating expenses by putting more iron in our diet!
STOP insists that in a city fringed by popular swimming beaches and fishing grounds, nothing less than tertiary treatment is acceptable. It is quite common in NSW coastal areas such as Ballina and Byron Bay.
But even there, where the ocean looks far cleaner than around Sydney, critics have said that tertiary treatment does not always remove dangerous bacteria and viruses, some of which can live in seawater for up to two weeks.
The Harvey-Scrines are concerned about beach pollution but, like the rest of us, must watch their budget. So they asked the Water Board why they should help fund its works when they are not connected to the sewerage system.
Because there's a sewer pipe next to the block, the board replied, and you could be connected. "Lots of vacant block owners pay the charge", it said.
Another board officer told them that they must pay the levy because rain water falling on their block would run off and be carried away by the board-controlled drainage system.
But as Caroline Harvey remarked, "Like much of the Mountains, the road is not guttered, so run-off just goes down the road and into the surrounding bush".
In a bold attempt by the long-offending board to make others feel like environmental criminals, the family was told that by holding on to a vacant block — which is in fact quite small and clearly a part of their garden — they were "forcing more land to be cleared for housing".
If such is the level of the board's expertise on simple matters, one must admit to some fears about the outcome of its grand plans for solving Sydney's sewage problem.